A Gameplan for Combating Oppression

Examining the psychological roots of racial oppression can help various causes.

Posted Dec 18, 2017

Identity politics has been the subject of intense debate on the American left since the 2016 election. There are some who decry it as an altogether ineffective failure. But much of the debate has been about which identity is most fundamental to a correct understanding of the left’s current political predicament and, relatedly, to a pragmatic strategy for finding a way out.

This is the backdrop of Cornel West’s recent opinion piece, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” West claims that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” at the cost of both an accurate understanding of the situation of the oppressed in this country and an adequate understanding of the necessary shape that the struggle for freedom must take. In contrast, West sees himself as part of the “radical wing of the black freedom struggle,” which “refuse[s] to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.” This critique of Coates is not exactly new. But it may have more bite coming from West.

Source: aspen institute-internal/Flickr

I am not here to argue in favor of a fundamental identity (or identities) to a correct grasp of our present problems and their solutions. It seems clear that various identities intersect and that we cannot adequately account for where we are at, individually or collectively, without acknowledging this. It also seems clear that someone like Coates is alive to this point, more so than his critics would seem to allow. But I am not here to defend Coates either.

Rather, I am here to make the case that one can do good work combating various forms of oppression by focusing narrowly on one facet of the problem. Insightful work on white supremacy can, indeed, inform effective action against prevailing class dynamics. This is because human oppression is, ultimately, rooted in elements of human psychology. And different forms of oppression may be rooted in the same features of human psychology. It is worth investigating whether insight into how the relevant psychological mechanisms operate in one domain can aid in plotting effective resistance in others as well.

Why focus on human psychology? Because we live in a world of our own making. Human institutions may be capable of taking on a life of their own. But they didn’t arise out of nowhere. They originated in the minds of people, and they are, in many respects, shaped and maintained by the same. Effective social change requires understanding the way human beings think.

What are the relevant features of human psychology? In an earlier post, I argued that downward comparison theory can teach us something about the forces driving Trumpism. We have a natural tendency to compare ourselves with others who are doing worse than us in order to raise our self-esteem, especially when our self-conceptions are threatened. This helps to make sense of why someone in coal country would be fixated on the NFL protests. His livelihood and identity may be threatened by economic forces, but at least he’s not black, like the kneeling players. By denigrating them in racial terms, he can feel better, even if his material circumstances remain tenuous.

Here we see a documented human psychological tendency playing out in the context of the intersection of race and class in America. The role of whiteness in shaping America is an old (and complicated) story. The appeal to principles of downward comparison theory is not an attempt to flatten what is undoubtedly uneven terrain. It is an attempt to characterize the human touch that has shaped our social world.

It is illuminating to look at the development and maintenance of the American racial caste system as the result of our tendency to feel better by putting others down for at least two reasons. In the first place, it helps to highlight shared features of various moments in this country’s history. We can, for instance, see connections between our current political context and the one surrounding Bacon’s Rebellion in 17th Century colonial Virginia. In both cases, elites were able to maintain the status quo by offering a “racial bribe” to lower class whites. ‘Let us keep our political and economic power over you, and you can have supremacy over them.’ Colonial law allowed white indentured servants and free men to punish black slaves and kill and enslave indigenous people with impunity, but they couldn’t control the tobacco market. Today, a white factory worker may not be able to find a job or pay for healthcare, but he can be reasonably sure that the police won’t shoot at him for declaring during a routine traffic stop that he has a lawfully concealed weapon.

But it is not just a matter of noticing past patterns. The role of downward comparison in the development and maintenance of the American racial caste system can point the way towards effective means of fighting back. If we seek change, we must confront not just the institutional landscape we find ourselves in, but also the psychological pressures that animate the arms that pull the levers of power. We need to ask questions like: When do people tend to exploit or appeal to differences in identity in this way? And what alternatives might serve the same functions, without giving rise to oppressive hierarchies? We may even ask whether there are certain institutional or procedural structures that are effective in blocking the development of hierarchies given our natural tendencies to compare ourselves with and seek to dominate others.

My working example has focused on the stoking of racial tensions, and the development and maintenance of racial hierarchy, in order to quell class conflict. But that does not mean that race always trumps class. Nor should it be taken to suggest that race and class are the only identities that matter. There is a palpable need at the moment to attend to the role of gender identity, especially in the context of economic vulnerability and government policy. Sexual preference and religious identity are big news. And these are just a few of the identities that deserve serious attention.

My aim is not to provide an exhaustive list of relevant identities or a conclusive analysis of the ways in which they interact with our tendency to feel better by disparaging others. My point is about the role of psychological investigation in combating oppression. We can apply psychological principles from downward comparison theory to our study of history and gain a better understanding of how we came to live in a country with an entrenched racial caste system. The insight this provides can help us to devise a more informed plan of attack to dismantle it. Perhaps it can also illuminate how other forms of oppression work. We can, for example, ask if the workplace is shaped by our tendency to increase our self-esteem by noticing that others are faring worse. Might the proverbial glass ceiling make men feel better about themselves? And might this be more pronounced in contexts where men’s self-conceptions are threatened, as downward comparison theory would predict?

West criticizes Coates’ “personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action.” But there is another way of understanding Coates’ project. He may sincerely believe that his pen is mightier than his sword, in the sense that he can do more to spur change—more to alleviate the plight of the oppressed—by applying his intellectual and rhetorical gifts to investigating and publicizing the way white supremacy works in this country. And he may be sticking to the old maxim: Write what you know. Perhaps race is the most salient identity shaping Coates’ experience. All the better for him to provide us with insights about it. As I have been urging, these insights can inform a broader understanding of the ways oppression works and a broader plan of attack.

I see no good reason to suppose that a writer focused on race in America cannot teach us something about class. Indeed, as my working example illustrates, the two identities would seem inextricable, at least in the American context. Moreover, tribalism would seem out of place in the fight against supremacy of all stripes—white, upper-class, male, straight, Northern, or otherwise. Indeed, it would seem that the freedom fighter’s aims would be best promoted by letting a thousand flowers bloom. Take the insights from people working in their areas of expertise and apply them to your own. A strong resistance will, thus, rise from a broad, deeply rooted foundation. Rather than a doomed paradigm, identity politics would seem to be a smart game plan. Let people work on the issues that speak to them most. And assemble a broad coalition willing to fight together for change based on the insights each brings to the table.